Our Torah portion this week marks the beginning of Moses’ farewell sermon to people Israel and begins with the words: “Reah Anochi notayn lifnaychem hayom bracha uklalah. (Deut. 11:26)” — “Behold I have set before all of you,” — you in the plural — “blessing and curse.”
Four weeks from now, the sermon will conclude in Parshat Nitzavim with the words: “Reah natati lifanecha hayom et hachayim v’et hatov v’et hamavet v’et hara” (Deut. 30:15) — “Behold I have set before you” — the singular you — “today, life and prosperity, death and adversity.”
The key difference between these two revelations is that this week the command “Reah,” “Behold!”, is directed to the community as a whole and at the end of this sermon in Deuteronomy 30 it is addressed to each individual.
The message of this nuanced use of the verb reah in these two passages 20 chapters apart has, I believe, a very important message for 21st century Jews. In both this week’s Torah reading and in the portion we will read on the last Shabbat of the year the Torah continually pleads with each of us, and all of us, to choose life, by choosing obedience to God, in every aspect of our lives. The commandments that follow in our Torah portion Reah this week govern both our ritual responsibilities to God and our social and ethical responsibilities to our fellow human beings. As Jews, even though we acknowledge the existence of holy time and holy space we do not see the service of God as limited to any one time or one place.
The countdown to Rosh Hashanah is on. The name of the month of Elul, which begins on this Shabbat, has been interpreted by Rabbinic Judaism as an acrostic for the statement from Song of Songs, “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li,” “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” Our rabbis interpret the verse, and therefore also the name of this final month of the year, as teaching us that we are God’s beloved and that God is our beloved. Since “love relationships” are always complex and are expressed in multi-dimensional emotions, I deduce from this teaching that Judaism recognizes that our love relationship with God, and with our fellow Jews, is also not simple.
According to rabbinic tradition, the first of Elul is the day Moses ascended Sinai for the second time. It is not only the time each year when we are commanded to begin our annual process of introspective preparation for the Days of Awe of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but a reminder that as long as we live each of us and We The People are given the chance to change. As I looked again at these two verses with which Moses begins and ends his farewell sermon to People Israel, and see the month of Elul as our rabbis did as a mnemonic for the phrase “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li,” I see that introspective self reflection on both a personal and communal level is the first step I must take in order to express my love of God and to experience God’s love for me and all my fellow human beings.
The coinciding of Shabbat Reah and Rosh Chodesh Elul this Shabbat calls out to me with the message that each of us has forty days until Yom Kippur to prepare ourselves for the Day of Accountability, when we have to present our most personal “returns” to The Comptroller On High. Unlike our income tax forms to the government, there are no extensions given; and each of us is called upon, in the next forty days to both take a personal accounting, and to “Reah!”, see, where we stand in our accounts both with each other and with God.
A second challenge which both this parsha and Rosh Chodesh Elul is the call I both hear and see to climb up from my lethargic apathy and echo the response of Israel at Mount Sinai, “Naaseh v’nishma!” — “We will take action and we will pay attention!” Taking this command to heart requires us to vow to be both God’s voice and hands in the world. The spectrum of commandments found in this week’s parsha reminds me that the choices each of us makes has an impact on the destiny of all of us; and that the choices we make as a community affects the options available to each of us. Every one of us can be a source of blessing or curse to others. Each of us, every day, is faced with multiple opportunities to choose the ethical over the expedient in everything we do.
In my “View from the Pew” column published in The Jewish Standard last month, I spoke of the need to continue to both have hope for a better future and to work to make the future for our children and grandchildren better. 5778 has been a challenging year in the world. Political leaders in America and Israel, in both the governing parties and the opposition, have too often failed to guide us in the best directions. The divisiveness within the Jewish community, again both in America and in Israel and between American Jewry and Israel, has grown wider and deeper.
David Ben Gurion, whom I consider to have been the greatest Jew of the 20th century, once said: “Time works both for us and against us depending upon how we use it.”
This quote, which has hung above my desk for 45 years, defines for me the task which confronts each of us and all of us over the next month.
The custom to begin to sound the shofar daily on Rosh Chodesh Elul is a ritual wake-up call that the days of accountability are imminent. May each of us reah — see — on this Shabbat Reah that we can make the time of this next month work for us, if we seek to reconcile our difference, and recognize the image of the Divine that is the essence of each of us. May we also see that we cannot afford to passively sit on the sidelines of life, but rather we must use the 40 days until Yom Kippur as time that works for us and not against us, by choosing life over death, love over hate, and peace over passivity.
May we all in the spirit of the words of Robert Kennedy who, just before he died fifty years ago, challenged himself and all human beings with what I believe is the ultimate Elul challenge: “There are those that look at things the way they are and ask: Why? I dream of things that never were and ask: Why not?”
May the next forty days be a time that each of us and all of us ask ourselves and each other: Why not? Why not work together with our fellow Americans and our fellow Jews everywhere to spread a Sukkah of Peace over the world? Why not see that every one of us is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and therefore see that every other is my brother or sister?
Shabbat Shalom and shana tova